By Fel (aka James Galloway) Table of Contents Chapter 1

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“What for?”

“You think I don’t have people near you protecting you, Rillen?” Jason asked bluntly. “You are my stepfather, and if you didn’t notice, I’m in a slightly sensitive political position. I have Kimdori in place around both your family and Ivin’s family. They keep you safe, and it keeps my mind at ease.”

“I had no idea,” he murmured.

“You’re an important person now, Rillen, if only because of who your daughter married,” he said dryly. “I’ve had protection in place around you for five years. If you’ve never noticed, they’re doing their job,” he chuckled. “But enough of stuff you can do nothing about,” he grinned. “I’ll call you back in five or six standard hours, I sorta have a lot going on. I’ll make some calls and get it organized. And don’t tell Jyslin, this is supposed to be a surprise.”

“I won’t,” he smiled. “I’ll still be at work in six standard hours, Jason. It’s barely an hour into the workday here.”

“It’s a little past lunch here,” he replied. Jerama had a 27.65 standard hour day, not too far off from the Imperium’s 30 hour day, and while the planet had its own day cycle, the Faey that lived on it still worked a 10 hour day, and worked an Imperium-allowed maximum of 70 hours in a takir, or 7 out of 10 days, 70 hours out of 300 hours in the “standard week.” That was Imperial labor law, and every employer had to observe those rules and fit them into their planet, moon, or station’s local daily time rotation as best they could. That was a standard through the Imperium, if the planet or moon had a 6 hour day or a 147 hour day, which one planet did have. Its day was about 7 months of its year.

“Alright, I’ll be waiting on your call, Jason.”

“I’ll make sure Chirk reminds me to call before you leave, even if I don’t have everything set up.”

Jason disconnected the call, then stood up to go to 3D and see how things were going over there. He still had quite a bit to do, but thankfully he had all day to get it done.
Daira, 11 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

Wednesday, 28 April 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

Daira, 11 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Command Ship Aegis, Task Force Seven flagship, orbiting planet PR-371-2
She didn’t like this.

Admiral Palla Karinne moved through her ready room from her personal quarters to the bridge, passing by her collection hanging on the walls and sitting on shelves within without paying much mind to it. Her pale pink eyes flinched slightly when she came out onto the bridge deck, which came to attention when the chime on her door called to signal her arrival on the bridge. “Resume your posts,” she called as she stalked right over to the comm, where three officers with microphones attached to their interfaces for more clear transmissions sat. “Are you sure it was decoded properly?” she asked, motioning at the handpanel.

“Yes, Captain,” her primary comm officer, Lieutenant Yari, answered.

She sighed. “Get me Station Liberty. Baroness Maggie MacCleod.”

Station Liberty was the station they’d towed through hyperspace for three days to get here. It was part control center and part staging area, filled to the bulkheads with automated weaponry, and while it was the headquarters of all operations at PR-371, in reality the whole thing existed for two people. Maggie MacCleod and Jake Wagner, two of the original members of the Legion, and representatives from the shadowy government entity known only as 3D. Most had no idea what it was or what it did, but Palla was high enough in the chain to know the truth of it, and that made those two humans probably the most important things at PR-371. Cunning and resourceful, the two Legion members were the ones who had real control of this theater. That was why the orders that came across the galaxy confused her a little bit, and caused her to get some corroboration. Maggie MacCleod’s face appeared on the main viewscreen as Palla took a seat in her chair. She was cute even by Faey standards, short and petite, but with stormy blue eyes and flaming red hair. “What’s up, Captain?” she asked in her unusual twangy accent, product of some place called Texas if she remembered right.

“We’ve received orders to jump to the nebula holding our enemy’s main command center and gather information, my Lady,” she replied. “Given I believe those orders entail something you’ll do later, do you have any specific requests on what we look for?”

“Nothing really. We have some long-range scans, but nothing solid. If you can get a sensor dropship into the nebula and get us some internal readings, it might help.”

“That will be very dangerous.”

“I know, so I’ll leave the military stuff to the military, Captain. Do what you think best. No matter what you get, it’s gonna help.”

“Understood, Baroness.”

“Good luck,” she nodded, then her image faded.

Palla frowned and crossed her legs demurely, which wasn’t that hard in Crusader armor due to its fit, and pondered the situation. She rapped on the arm of her command chair a moment, then glanced to her left. “Comm, get me Captain Marayi Karinnne aboard the Dreamer.”

“At once, sir.”

“Marayi’s handsome face appeared on the main screen, sitting at her desk in her ready room. “Admiral, what can I do for you?”

“We have orders to initiate a probing action against the nebula holding the enemy command station,” she revealed. “To gather intelligence and survey its defenses and capabilities. I want to send a sensor dropship into the nebula, and it’s going to need fighter escort. Given the dangerous nature of that kind of a mission, I need the best fighter squadron in the KMS, Marayi.”

“The 76th is on standby and awaiting orders, Captain,” Marayi said proudly. Nobody needed to say who the best fighter squadron in the KMS was. Everyone already knew.

“I want you to carry out the initial probing action, Marayi,” Palla ordered. “I’m assigning Squadron B to your command for this operation. Jump in, scan as best you can, and try to ascertain their defenses while the sensor dropship enters the nebula and tries to get more refined scans of its interior and whatever surprises it holds. Find a sensor dropship and the best pilot you can stick in its chair and prepare the ships under your flag to jump to the nebula, Captain.”

“Understood, Captain,” Marayi said with a nod. “When do we begin?”

“As soon as you’re ready. Orders will be sent down as soon as we get off the comm.”

“Then we’ll be jumping out in thirty minutes,” she replied, standing up and picking up her helmet.

“Trelle be with you, Captain. Be careful.”

“Always am, sir,” she replied, then Palla cut the connection.

Aegis out.” Palla leaned back in her chair, rapping her fingers on the arm, then she hit the intercom button on her chair, one of her hardline connections. “Commander Grevkik.”

“Aye, sir?” her Makati engineering officer said.

“Our enemies are hiding their base inside a nebula. What do you think can you do about that?”

The Makati chuckled. “Oh, there are ways to get around those problems, and a couple that will turn the nebula against the Consortium,” he replied.

“I want you to sit down with your engineering team and flesh out all those ideas in a report, which you’ll place on my desk as soon as possible.”

“Give us two hours, sir. Me and Grzz’kik have been discussing this a little, since we figured we’d be going in there eventually. We already have a few ideas.”

“I’ll be waiting to hear them.”

“Aye, sir. Two hours.”

“Very good, Commander. Bridge out.” Palla stood back up. “Send down the orders from Karis command to Squadron B and give them permission to deploy for the mission. I’ll be in my ready room. Keep me updated as to Squadron B’s mission status, Commander. You have the conn, Exo,” she said as she headed back for her ready room.

“Aye sir,” her first officer nodded.

Commander Justin Taggart of the 76th Tactical Fighter Squadron, nicknamed the Ghost Squadron by most in the KMS, called the meeting of his 39 pilots and 40 wizzos to order. Most of his girls had been with him long enough not to take the fact that he was a Terran and a man lightly, but his two newest recruits looked a bit irked taking orders from him. They’d only been with the squadron for about three weeks, coming on board just before they deployed to the PR sector. A couple of the girls were wearing nightclothes, since they’d been called to the briefing room out of the blue, but they were awake and alert. Everyone knew something was going on, because the entire ship was ordered to general quarters and the twenty minute warning for jump had been issued.

“What’s going on, boss?” his wizzo Joae asked.

“Not sure yet, Captain Marayi ordered us to assemble. She said she’d brief us personally.”

“Another drill,” Lieutenant Iyoi growled. She was the greenest member of the team, just out of flight school. She had a lot of talent, but like most young pilots, she had something of a discipline problem. She was also a bit scornful of being assigned under a male commander.

The briefing room door opened, and the squadron came to attention. “At ease,” Captain Marayi Karinnne said as she rushed in, clearly in a hurry. “We’ll make this quick, ladies, Commander,” she said as she touched her interface, and a holo appeared at the front of the room showing a nebula. “We have orders to probe the defenses of the nebula holding the Consortium’s egg-laying queens and command center. Squadron B will be jumping out in twenty minutes to execute this probing action. What I need from you, Justin, is ten pilots in a Wolf and your absolute best pilot that can handle a heavy SSI dropship. We’re sending that SSI dropship into the nebula to conduct internal scans, and it’s going to need fighter escort.”

Taggart didn’t even have to think. “Wing one, you’re on escort duty,” he ordered. “Wing two in your Wolves and on standby in case a scramble is issued. Wing three on passive standby and four on regular duty rotation.”

“Who’s flying the dropship, Commander?”

“I am,” he replied bluntly. “What’s the orders?”

“Once you launch, you have complete discretion, Commander. We’ll buy you as much time as we can. Get in there, get as much data as you can, then get the hell out. The fleet will drop out of hyperspace here and come to the edge of the nebula,” she said, using her interface to put an icon on the holo. “If we’re forced to retreat, we’ll follow this vector so you can rendezvous with the fleet. Don’t be late, Commander. It’s a long flight back to PR-371 from here.”

“That’s all we need to know, Captain. Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to get in place before the jump.”

“Further information will be sent to your ship,” she said with a nod, then she put on her helmet deliberately. “Good luck, Justin.”

“Who’s flying your position if you’re in the dropship, Commander?” Iyoi asked.

He looked at her. “Berya, you take my place as the tenth fighter in the wing. Lassa, you have command of Wing Three if you’re called up.”

“Aye-aye, boss,” both said.

Iyoi came out beside him as they left the briefing room and entered the hangar. Come on, Commander, give me a chance! she sent privately. I can do this! I grew up flying a skimmer through the Wastelands, I know how to handle nebula turbulence!

You haven’t even flown your first combat sortie, Lieutenant.

No, Commander, not a fighter. I want to second chair the dropship. I have the rating for heavy dropships, and I have real experience flying nebulas. I can help.

He glanced at her. You have three minutes to armor up.

Yes! she sent in glee, literally jumping up and pumping her fist in the air. She then ran for the locker room, her nightshirt riding up to show her bare blue butt.

On board the sensor dropship, the four sensor officers back in the control compartment were bringing the ship online as Taggart locked himself in his chair and assumed command of the ship via interface. The cockpit lit up as the ship started startup diagnostics. Taggart explained what they were about to do as he saw his element of the squadron float up into their fighters. Swap your drones, Taggart sent. I don’t want anything with a pulse cannon getting lost in that nebula and picked up by the bugs. Torsion drones only.

Got it, boss, Berya sent. You heard the boss, ladies. Why don’t I see drones swapping?

The drones did just that, unlocking from the wings and floating over to the munitions rack on their own engines as the Torsion-equipped drones replaced them, all done by computer control Deck officers were conducting the final inspections of the Wolf fighters and the dropship as the three minute warning blared over the intercom. Clear the deck, get in your jump restraints! We’ll have time when we arrive to finish the inspections! Taggart boomed across the hangar. Iyoi all but jumped into the second chair and waved her hand in front of the blackglass, which activated her side of the cockpit, then she jacked her interface into the ship using a fiber cable. Like all military ships in the KMS, it had no manual controls on either side of the cockpit. Everything was interface controlled, and the hard fiber cable was an emergency backup in case the interface remote system got fried in combat. It would fly by remote by default, then switch to the hardline connection if there was a problem with the primary system.

All systems online, Commander, Iyoi reported.

Sensor systems online and ready, Commander, the sensor officer reported.

Drone swaps finished, boss, we’re ready to rock, Berya called.

Taggart called up all the information they had on the nebula as the jump countdown continued. It was pretty big, and the command center was square in the middle. Like all nebulas, the density of the gases varied within the nebula, and there were also currents of gas flow formed by its creation and fueled by the nebula’s gravity field, as well as a tiny proto-star that illuminated the entire thing, which was located at the edge of the nebula’s side that faced the galactic core, or inward in naval ship navigator lingo. If the fleet dropped out of hyperspace in a direct line to the nebula, they’d arrive on the “southeast ” side of the nebula if inward was east, far enough away from the protostar not to have to worry about it, but close enough for its light to illuminate the nebula’s gas and make flying through it like driving through pea soup fog in twilight. Taggart plotted a course that would take them on a 26 minute course in and back out in a roughly elliptical route, getting them close enough to get some long-range scans of the command station in the center and relying on the nebula to hide them. Inside a nebula shields wouldn’t work, MPAC weaponry had reduced range, and the gases created magnetic, ion, electrical, and gravitational fluxes that screwed with sensors. That was why Marayi was sending in a sensor dropship, so they could get more reliable readings deeper inside the nebula.

Iyoi, however, disagreed. That’s not going to work, Commander, she sent quickly, pointing. This is a primary wake current, it’s going to make it impossible to follow your course. Do it like this, she said, tracing a different path. Let the wake current pull us in, get out of it here and swing around for the lateral pass, then hit this branch current here and let it carry us to this point. Then we punch out and head back to the Dreamer.

And you’re sure it’ll work?

I’m positive, Commander. I was flying worse currents than this when I was fifteen. This nebula is nothing compared to the Wastelands. That nebula isn’t for the meek.

Alright, Lieutenant. We’ll play it your way. Send that flight path out to the fighters and the bridge before we jump, so it’s there when we come out.

Aye, ma’am, she sent and used her interface to lock in the plan and then transmit it to the fighters in Wing A and the bridge, telling the navigator where they intended to go, just in case.

Don’t call me that, I’m not a Faey. Call me boss, he sent in irritation. Human men don’t like being called that.

Whyever not?

It’s a military tradition on my planet for men to be called sir, and I was a military man long before we joined the Imperium.

But only the captain can be called sir.

And that’s why you’ll call me boss, he sent evenly.

Aye, boss, she corrected, a bit amused.

Some people hated hyperspace jumps, but Taggart wasn’t one of them. He suffered from the hallucinations and the sensations like everyone else, but since he knew it was nothing but sensory ghosts, he was usually more curious about them than afraid, and hyperspace never made him dizzy or sick to his stomach like it did others. The more intense the sensory ghosts got, the more curious they made him. He had well over five minutes to study the wildly contorting space around him, eyes open and looking around as Iyoi’s eyes were closed tight under her helmet. The instant they came out of hyperspace, Taggart was alert and moving as Iyoi shook her head and moaned a little bit. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that,” she complained in a weak voice.

“Welcome to the Navy, Lieutenant,” Taggart said crisply. “Primaries online.”

“SSI Two, you are cleared for launch,” the order came over gravband. “Maintain radio silence within the nebula.”

“Understood,” he called back, adjusting the comm system, then he grabbed the assist posts that kept a pilot’s hands busy while he flew, since many pilots had the habit of trying to “fly” a ship with his hands as well as his mind, and that created a secondary ghost echo in the command stream that occasionally confused the interface control computer. We’re cleared for launch. Diamond formation around the dropship, and pay attention to the nav. Radio silence, so sending only. Watch it for unmapped currents, watch your spacing, and stay on your toes, ladies. Nebulas are notorious for rogue currents. Also remember to run your de-ionizers, you’re gonna pick up massive charges on the hull in a hurry out there if we run into high-density gas clouds. Iyoi nodded approvingly as Taggart picked the dropship up off the deck, then turned it towards the airskin shield.

Least we’re using translation engines. Flying a nebula on standard grav engines is an adventure, Iyoi remarked as they cleared the ship, then accelerated geometrically towards the roiling mass of reddish-orange gas, backlit and illuminated by the protostar some 56.5 million kathra from their position. All that gravity flux plays havoc with them.

I see you’ve read up on the specs.

Since the day I got into the flight academy, boss, she replied.

Taggart picked the dropship up off the deck and accelerated through the airskin shield, and saw the reddish mass before him like a dawn sky. The fighters came out behind him and assumed the diamond defensive formation, three fighters in front, two to each side, and three behind. The fighters were synced to the dropship to match speed, and any course corrections Taggart made showed in the fighters’ heads-up displays to let them know exactly where he was going. The squadron of 15 KMS ships veered off on 16 mark 1, while the dropship and its escorts turned into the nebula along 302 mark 355. The dropship shivered a little when they crossed into the gas field, then started to vibrate as both ionization and heat guages for the hull began to rise. Them moving through the gas ionized the hull and caused friction heating. The sensor officers started their scans, probing deeper into the nebula as they headed inside, as the visual turned into a reddish mist caused by dust particles suspended in with the hydrogen and helium. Nebula density increasing by six hundred parts per million per second, one of the sensor jockeys sent.

Keep off STG, send only, Taggart reminded them. The bugs can access gravband.

This shit is getting thick, Berya noted from the lead fighter, which was 320 shakra in front of him and slightly lower. Her Wolf was hazy in the reddish gloom, vanishing into some of the thicker dust clouds.

Keep your local mass density sensors on primary, Taggart sent. We’re coming up on the wake current in two minutes. When we enter it, keep a loose stick, don’t fight the current. Iyoi nodded professionally as she glanced over at him.

Surprising you know how to fly a current, but you didn’t know how to navigate through one, Iyoi sent privately, a bit lightly.

You can cross a current, just takes plotting for the drift, he answered.

Yeah, but the current will take us right where we want to go, why fight it?

That’s why we went with your plot, because it does do the job. We’ll get a nice lateral scan of the interior. I was going to reduce speed, but I like the idea of keeping moving. The bugs learn fast, rookie, and they adapt.

The ship rocked when they entered the current, and Taggart moved into the center of it, allowing the river of gas and dust carry them deeper into the nebula. The fighters drifted in their formation as Iyoi watched the chronometer, counting the seconds until they veered out for their lateral pass. I’m getting some contacts, Commander, one of the sensor officers called. Mass variances at maximum range.


They’re moving.

How big?

I can’t get a solid reading because of the nebula, but it looks around 12 benkonn mass variances. Maybe some rocky debris, maybe small ships or drones. I’d lean towards ships, Commander, the mass variances are pretty consistent across all contacts. That’s not normal for a cloud of meteors.

Gravity distortion from a grav drive?

No, Commander.

Taggart frowned as he veered out of the current and began a lateral pass of the enemy installation, which was still some 25,500 kathra deeper in the small nebula. But for the sensors on the dropship, that was close enough to get some readings. What about those mass readings?

They’re changing course, Commander. They’re definitely small ships, but they’re not using grav engines.

“Fuck!” Taggart snapped, jacking the throttle. He almost rammed Berya when the escorts didn’t react fast enough. They’ve got fighters! Taggart barked.

Where? I don’t see—

They’re incoming from three o’clock low, ETA 39 seconds! He replied. Get those readings, ladies, cause this is about to become a full contact sport! he sent back to his sensor officers as sparks danced along the hull of the dropship, ionization causing electrical discharge. Do not chase them! Taggart ordered. Protecting the dropship is your primary goal!

Deploy ECDs! Berya barked. Keep them leashed! Set drones to protect the dropship!

They passed parallel to the facility lost in the reddish haze, speeding up as they entered a lighter density area of the nebula, trailing sparks and with arcs of lightning dancing between the fighters, dropship, spinners, and drones. Forty-one contacts, Commander, accelerating! Definitely fighters, I’m getting energy readings through the static! the lead sensor officer warned.

They’re not drones?

I’m getting lifesigns, they’re fighters!

Well, the bugs have a new toy, Taggart growled as he adjusted course.

They must have their own fighters, Berya grunted.

I’m getting an echo at the edge of my scope, boss, Houri called. Multiple contacts! Coming in fast!

Show ‘em why nobody fucks with the 76th, girls! Taggart called. How much more time?

Try to give us twenty more seconds, Commander, the sensor officer replied.


The enemy fighters streaked in out of the gloom directly behind them. They were armed with Torsion cannons, and they looked maneuverable. The pilots in them looked to be somewhat competent, but they were not the insectoids from the Consortium, and that meant they were Imxi. They’d never come up against Faey before. I can sense their minds. They’re not bugs! Wizzos, nail ‘em! Taggart boomed to his wing’s mindstrikers, who sat in the cockpits so they could conduct telepathic combat while the pilots flew.

Not all of them, let’s see how well those fighters operate, Berya added. Don’t nail all of ‘em.

Yes, nail all of ‘em. Make them fight each other, we’ll see how good those ships are in case they put bugs in ‘em, Taggart countermanded.

You got it, boss, Vecha, the closest mindstriker, replied.

The shooting quickly trailed off as the ten mindstrikers in the fighters around them did their jobs. They dominated the pilots of the fighters, putting some to sleep after putting them in a parallel course, but actively controlling others, forcing them to fire on each other, releasing them somewhat from their control but convincing them that the other Imxi were the enemy and that they were defending the dropship. Taggart didn’t relax, for those fighters might just be the vanguard for a Consortium destroyer, and they couldn’t dominate the bugs that would be on that enemy ship. The enemy fighters were very agile, fast, and like most fighters that weren’t Faey or Karinne, they had almost no armor or defenses. They relied almost completely on their speed and agility to protect themselves. They got some solid data on the ships, and then they destroyed all of them but one. That one Vecha herded along with them, to interrogate its Imxi pilot and analyze Imxi technology. She had the pilot shut down all the fighter’s communication and telemetry, making it look like his fighter was destroyed along with the rest of them.

I’m stunned that they made such a basic mistake, Berya growled as they turned back for the edge of the nebula. They know we’re telepaths. They know what we can do, like when we took back the Shio and Alliance systems.

But they didn’t know if the Imxi were resistant to talent, like some races are. Now they do. They sent those pilots out as guinea pigs, Taggart reasoned. They were just a probing action.

Well, now we have an Imxi to debrief and one of their fighters to take apart, Berya noted. Their little trick is gonna cost them more than us.

Maybe. Maybe not, Taggart grunted as they neared the current that would carry them back out towards the edge of the nebula. Did you get good readings, girls?

We got some solid readings, Commander. We’re good to go.

Any large ships moving in our direction?

Yes, but they can’t go that fast in the nebula. We’ll outrun them easily, Commander. The bigger the ship, the more ionization and hull heating it causes when it moves around in here. We can just flat-out go faster than they can.

Interesting. Do a full scan of that Imxi ship. It might have some virus or nasty on it they want us to bring back.

Starting the scan, Commander.

Good deal. Alright, girls, let’s get the hell out of here.

It took them nearly seven minutes to clear the nebula, and the parting of the red haze revealed far more going on outside than inside. The ten Wolves, dropship, and their captured prey streaked toward a ferocious battle, as the 15 KMS warships retreated from the nebula with 39 Consortium warships hot on their tails, and the flaming debris of several other of the spike-winged vessels and a different type, a much smaller sleek nacelled corvette class that had to be Imxi, trailing behind the battle. The retreating KMS ships lanced white bars of death back at the pursuing ships, sharing the sky with plasma torpedoes and missiles as the KMS employed their open-space tactic of holding the enemy at optimal range, within range of particle beams but outside of Torsion range. Another Consortium ship bloomed in a greenish-red explosion on its port wing as a particle beam sheared through its left wing, slicing the ship in two pieces and the explosion of plasma and decompression causing the small spiked wing and several compartments of the stern section spin away from the main body, fire and atmosphere gouting out of the fatal wound. Another ship was hit dead center by a plasma torpedo, the entire ship simply dissolving in a hellstorm as the torpedo detonated. The KMS ships were surrounded in a reddish, wavering aura as their Torsion shockwave generators employed as enemy missiles streaked in, exploding before they reached the shields. Taggart turned into the planned course of the KMS ships before they made the turn themselves and maxed out the throttle, holding onto the posts as the dropship vibrated from the exponential acceleration, feeling himself being pressed into his armor and the chair as the inertial dampers were overtaken by the inertial force being exerted, and the towing beam they had on the Imxi ship was red-lining, since the Imxi ship couldn’t match their velocity. The KMS warships made their turn and moved to intersect their course, but they also attracted unwanted attention, as a lone Consortium destroyer came out of the red haze behind them and started to accelerate.

Consortium destroyer moving to intercept! Iyoi sent, fear bleeding into her sending as the rookie got her first real view of naval combat. Where did that come from? They couldn’t have caught up to us!

Defensive rear, Berya! Time to use up the drones! Taggart ordered. Send them in!

You heard the boss, set drones to attack the destroyer. Suicide mode! The forty drones turned and streaked towards the advancing destroyer as the fighters realigned, all ten of them getting behind the dropship to protect it, turning around and flying backwards to point their pulse cannons in the direction of the enemy but still accelerating along the same vector as the dropship. The drones accelerated far faster than the fighters could since they had no pilots, and both the destroyer and the drones opened fire on each other when they came into range of their Torsion weapons. 28 drones were destroyed as they passed through the optimal range of the destroyer’s heavy guns, but once they got inside, where they couldn’t track well, the drones blasted dozens of smoking holes in the black armor of the enemy ship. Several more explosions ruptured its hull as the drones continued to fire, then the drones turned and dove into those smoking craters within the destroyer’s armor at full throttle and guns blazing. The Consortium ship shuddered and immediately started to tumble when the drones crashed into the interior of the ships, huge fountains of flame erupting from the holes, its power blinking on and off several times, and then going dark.

Recall ECDs, get ready to dock on the Dreamer, Taggart ordered, then he realigned his thinking to command thought. [We’re coming in hot, Dreamer,] his thought was translated to gravband.

[Port bow hangar deck, Commander. Don’t miss the window,] came the reply.

The intersection of their courses was smooth and without incident. Taggart turned into the path of the battleship and matched velocity almost perfectly to line the dropship up with the hangar, and the dropship streaked into the hangar and quickly decelerated. The fighters followed it in, landing skids deploying as Taggart set the dropship on the deck, then Vecha caused the Imxi pilot to land just behind the Wolf fighters and then fall into a comatose state. Do not approach that fighter! Taggart barked. Get Medical down here to scan the ship for microbes! Vecha, keep the Imxi comatose. Captain, we need your best mindbender down here, we have a prisoner, he sent with enough strength to reach the bridge.

I saw it. Everyone in the hangar bay, strap in for emergency jump! Marayi’s sending washed over them.

Mission accomplished, girls. Good work, Taggart sent as they felt the ship turn again, then start to slow down to minimum jump speed. He knew that behind them, the ships were laying down a withering carpet of defensive missile fire which would saturate enemy sensors and force them to break off or get plastered. Those missiles were MIRVs, and one missile would release 60 separate cluster warheads to form a wall of warheads that would make a ship that didn’t have a shockwave generator really think about trying to fly through it. Like a spy car releasing a smokescreen, the missiles’ purpose was not to attack the enemy, but to force their pursuers to slow down or break off pursuit.

The missiles accomplished their goal. Taggart felt the ship stop decelerating, achieving maximum safe jump velocity, and then they snapped out of reality in the blink of an eye, jumping away from the nebula and towards the safety of PR-371.

Vesta, 15 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

Sunday, 2 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

Vesta, 15 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

The White House, Karsa, Karis
Everything was ready.

Jason almost skipped down the hall towards his office as tomorrow’s plans whirled in his mind. Jyslin’s parents, brother, and brother’s family were all waiting to be picked up, and Lorna and her family were already en route, where they would hide on Kosigi until tomorrow. Jyslin had no idea that her family was going to be at her birthday party tomorrow, and that made all the cloak and dagger worth it. He had even gotten her the best present any husband could ever give a wife, at least in the Imperium.

An IBL team.

Frinia Foralle was in his office that very moment and ready to finalize the deal. Houses Karinne and Trefani would buy the Paladins for C165,000,000,000 in cash, payable by immediate credit transfer by the attending Moridon bank officials, who had to be there to approve a private, non-governmental transaction of that magnitude. House Karinne would front the entire payment, and House Trefani would pay their 42% of the buyout price back to House Karinne in yearly installments over the next ten years, which was fine with Jason because it gave him a solid financial hold over Yila…and Yila didn’t mind, because she was confident the profits she earned off the deal would pay the installments, which gave her 42% of a second IBL team with virtually no money out of her pocket. Frinia certainly didn’t make it easy for them, though. She had spent three days inspecting the Karsa arena, the city of Karsa, speaking to city residents about their enthusiasm for having an IBL team, almost interrogating Jason, Kumi, Meya Dela, Yila, and even going so far as to interview the groundskeepers in the arena to ensure they were up to the task of managing a bachi field for an IBL team. She spent nearly nine hours reading Kumi’s buyout proposal, then spent nearly a full day haggling the fine points of the contract, which to her credit completely revolved around ensuring her team was going to be made competitive in the IBL. She wasn’t selling her team to someone who wanted to have the prestige of being an IBL owner. She wanted a team owner that cared if the team won. If she wanted someone that wouldn’t care about the team, she had her own daughter for that. Jason had played college football and he was extremely competitive, almost Faey-level competitive, and he impressed upon Frinia that while he didn’t know much about bachi, he’d hire the best damn front office and coaches he could find, and he would compete with the Highborns and their bottomless bank accounts for top-tier talent to fill his roster. After nearly four days of discussion, inspection, and investigation, Frinia haggled a buyout price with Kumi and Yila, and the contract was drawn up.

And finally, Frinia would keep a 10% ownership stake in the team so she could continue to have a say, as well as earn 10% of all Paladin profits taken equally from both Jason and Yila. The minority stake would revert back to Jason and Yila upon her death, and the 10% profit sharing would end. Her daughter would not inherit that 10% team ownership. Frinia would also help transition the team to Karis, moving the operations from Velta to an office building right beside the arena, four entire floors of office space for the front office to build an operation. The team would share the training facilities with the Knights for off-season minicamps and workouts until their own could be built, which would take all of two months once Jason put Red Horn Construction on the job, more than enough time to get them built and ready for the team when they started preseason training camp in Kiraa.

Or, more to the point, Jyslin would be running the team. Jason was giving operational control of the Paladins to Jyslin. She wasn’t as busy as he was, and while she did do a lot of work, she would be more than happy to find the time to build a contending IBL team for next season. It would bring a great deal of positive morale to Karis, the house would profit from the Paladins, Miaari already had an operational plan in place to protect Karis and Karinne’s secrets from interlopers hiding within visiting IBL team organizations, and everyone would be happy.

This contract signing was taking place well after dark, 2338 by his clock on his gestalt, but his legal team had needed time to read the contract and approve it. That was fine with him, because he’d had a busy day. The destroyer Tikanne had just arrived from the PR sector after a three day hyperspace journey back to Karis, and it was carrying an Imxi fighter and its Imxi pilot. Captain Gai Edanne had delivered the Imxi fighter to Myleena personally, and the pilot went to Ryn. Ryn was the most highly trained telepath on all of Karis, a mindbender in all but official title, and Ryn had paired with Haelen Karinne, the oldest Generation male and one of the most skilled male telepaths in the house, to give Cybi the ability to upload virtually the pilot’s entire mind right into the archives for analysis and storage and dissemination of the Imxi language. The Imxi themselves were both humanoid and quite unusual. They had brutish human-like faces, like Neanderthals, had the same beige coloring as a Terran, and had a very humanoid body that put another peg on the board for the theory known as Gora’s Law. The pilot was exactly 6 shakra tall, which put him around 6’5” or about 2 meters, and he was hexapoid. The pilot had four arms, a second set of arms below his normal arms that were more slender and slightly longer than his upper arms, and only had four fingers on each hand, but had five toes on his feet. He had human-like male genitalia, and a DNA scan showed that he had remarkably human-like DNA, very nearly able to produce children with a Terran or Faey, but not quite…much to the relief of the image-conscious Faey. This Imxi was ugly to a Faey, and the idea that they could have a baby with something that ugly would be very disconcerting to them. He was of the same basic family classification as the Terrans, Faey, Shio, and Jakkans—though the Jakkans were radically different form the others, they were still humanoid by classification—in that he only had coarse black hair on his head, in a patch just over his collar bones, above his genitals, and on his forearms and calves. Jason would classify him as a four-armed Neanderthal and not be far from the mark.

While he looked brutish, Ryn and Haelen proved that he was pretty damned intelligent. He was both highly educated and well trained, and had been a fighter pilot for 6 standard years. The Imxi had just discovered hyperspace technology about 250 years ago, used a mixture of plasma to power their engines and positronic power systems to power everything else, but had not yet mastered spatial technologies. That meant no phased plasma, no artificial gravity on their ships, no gravometric engines. Their engines were standard reaction engines, expending fuel in a chemical reaction that produced some pretty incredible energy, more than enough to move their warships, the largest of which were about the size of a tactical battleship. They utilized a very clever form of phased ion energy that was shield-piercing for their weapons before the Consortium gave them Torsion weapons, and the Consortium was upgrading their ships to striated metaphased power systems for them, taking equipment out of damaged ships and refitting them on Imxi craft. Before the Consortium came along, their technology was bout 2,000 years behind the Faey, and that entire quadrant of the galaxy was similarly technologically backwards. The Imxi were in the vanguard among their sector’s civilizations, one of the first to develop hyperspace technology, but they were millennia behind the empires of the Imperium and its neighbors. This Imxi had the intelligence to comprehend modern technology, his race simply hadn’t progressed to that level. They would have gotten there on their own had the Consortium not given them advanced tech, it would have just taken them time to research, study, discover, and grow.

That explained why the Kimdori had no information on them. They really only interacted with civilizations that had enough technological advancement to be a threat to galactic peace, then they moved in and tried to keep war from exploding across an entire sector, or even across a quadrant. Systems like Terra had no idea that the Kimdori were out there, and if they did, they’d be kissing the Denmother’s feet. It was the Kimdori’s actions that prevented what happened in Andromeda from happening in the Milky Way, where the entire galaxy came to be dominated by only two pan-galactic empires, which then engaged in a war so ghastly that a normal person would be emotionally scarred for life to learn the extent to which both sides had devolved into monsters. The Kimdori worked to allow empires to grow and expand, but not become a threat to an entire sector, sector cluster, or even a quadrant, which would lead to galactic aspirations.

So, while they wouldn’t learn anything from the Imxi from a technological standpoint, they would learn about the Imxi themselves. Everything that pilot knew, they would know, pulled out of every corner of his mind by Ryn and Haelen. Their language, culture, customs, the names they gave their own systems and planets, everything would be archived by Cybi into the Karinne knowledge base. That information might be very useful later on, even if the Consortium knew they had an Imxi fighter and most likely its pilot. They wouldn’t be able to sneak by anyone by pretending to be Imxi, but the more one knew about one’s enemy, the easier that enemy was to defeat.

When he reached his office, everyone was there waiting for him. Two representatives from the First Bank of Moridon, where Karinne had its house accounts, and two representatives from Moridon Pan-Galactic Bank, the bank Frinia’s house used, were in attendance. Frinia was sitting at the meeting table in the outer office along with Kumi, Yila, Mayor Dela of Karsa, Miaari, and Trameken Lenarre, the facility manager for the Karsa Sports Complex. Also there were four members of the legal team, holding the approved contract and its three official copies, Ten Marines stood as guards within the room, and Chirk and Brall sat at their desks watching on.

“Ah, there you are, Jason,” Frinia smiled as he came in, Jason taking off his helmet. “I was starting to wonder.”

“I had something important come up, I’m sorry I’m late, Frinia,” he replied as he came over to the table and sat down between Kumi and Yila. “Is everything in order?”

“Sure is, babes,” Kumi replied. “We’ve got the contracts, and we’re all ready to sign.”

“This contract will transfer ownership of the Velta Paladins from Frinia Foralle, Grand Duchess of House Foralle, to the ownership alliance of Jason Karinne and Yila Trefani, Grand Duke and Grand Duchess of their respective houses. Transfer of operational control will be immediate upon the filing of this contract with the IBL Ownership Committee,” Jack Weathers, the Terran leader of his legal team, instructed. “Here to officially witness the signing of the contract and enact the transfer of the agreed to credits are the four members of the respective banking institutions with jurisdiction over the transaction. All four are officially accredited with the Moridon Overseer Agency as fully licenses, bonded, and accepted Notary Publics, with the authority to witness and confirm this transaction. Does anyone disapprove of the use of these Notaries in this transaction?” Jack asked. When silence greeted him, he nodded. “Very well then. Upon the signing of the contract and transfer of funds, this contract will be filed with the IBL home office immediately by courier, and the Paladin organization will begin moving to its new offices in Karsa.”

The legal team set down the four contracts, one in front of Frinia, Yila, and Jason, and the fourth on the table in the middle, which would be the IBL’s copy. “Very well then. This contract will require only one signature and authorizing thumbprint from each party of the contract. Shall we proceed?”

The signing ceremony was recorded by one of Cybi’s cameras, where the three house leaders signed the four copies of the contract, affixed their thumbprints to confirm ID, then the Moridons carefully examined each contract and affixed their seals of authorization. Then came the much more invasive transfer of C166 billion in cash, which required all four bank officials and a dedicated crypto link back to the Council of Finance on Moridon, which had to authorize a private transaction of that size for legal reasons, to prove that the contract price was paid. After the exhaustive ID scans, which included a DNA sample, the transfer of credit was approved. A big chunk of the house’s bank account was transferred to House Foralle, but as far as Jason was concerned, he’d earn every credit back. An IBL team was a gold mine of income. After that, they traded handshakes and kisses, and the four Moridon took up the fourth contract and immediately left for Draconis, to deliver the transfer of ownership contract to the league’s home office.

Thankfully, the IBL commissioner and offices had no say in the sale of IBL teams. Sending them the contract was simply telling them that the team had been sold, and that an alliance of the Houses Karinne and Trefani now owned the Karis Paladins.

Once the Moridons left, Jason kissed Frinia on the cheek and patted her on the shoulder. “Call your front office and tell them they’re about to move, Frinia,” he told her. “I hope they don’t mind changing systems that much.”

“Suitable severance packages were part of the contract if my front office people don’t want to leave Velta,” she smiled. “But most of them will move with the team. They’re devoted to the Paladins, Jason. That’s why I hired them in the first place.”

“Provided they can pass the security screening,” he reminded her. That was also part of the contract.

“I’m sure they will, Jason. Bachi is their life. They won’t be a security threat. They’re working to make the team great. Just give them the offices and the resources they need, and they can do it. I’m sure they can.”

“They’ll get their chance, Frinia, I promise,” he told her. “Now go break the bad news to them.”

“I see it as good news, Jason. With you bankrolling the team far beyond what I could, the Paladins are going to finally compete. And to me, nothing could make this old woman happier,” she said with a brilliant and earnest smile. “I just hope I’m still alive the first time the Paladins make the playoffs.”

“You will be,” he assured her, patting her on the shoulder.

Jason walked along with Miaari after the meeting ended, Frinia and Yila heading home, Kumi heading for home herself since it was so late, and Jason heading for Miaari’s office. It was in the same building and down two floors, and when he came in, he saw that her entire staff was in and working, including Tim. “We’re analyzing the data that Haelen is putting on the mainframe, even as we speak,” she reported. “We already have the Imxi language fully decoded and stored, available for gestalt download on demand, so a Generation can insert it to one of the other telepaths. Songa has medically screened the pilot as well and cultured all Imxi common microbes. Her team is working up cures to the microbes in the Imxi’s body.”

“Sounds good. Written language too?”

“We have it all,” she nodded.

“What about the fighter?”

“Friend Myleena has an engineering team inspecting it. They haven’t sent any reports yet. I can almost hear Myleena rubbing her hands in anticipation of something else she can take apart,” Miaari chuckled.

“You know how she loves her toys, Miaari,” Jason agreed. “But about all she’ll learn from that fighter is how the Consortium adapted it to their own power system to run the Torsion cannon.”

“It is probably one of the self-powered models, the bunker emplacement units, so they only had to run control lines so the pilot could fire it.”

“Probably, he nodded. “Myli might take their engines apart, though. Reaction engines like that aren’t something you see in this sector much anymore.”

“Truly. They are antiques by Imperium standards, and positively ancient by ours.”

“Well, if that’s all we have so far, I guess I’m gonna go home. We have a big day tomorrow.”

“I’ll have a report ready in the morning, if you even read it,” she said lightly.

“Hey, some things are more important than being a Grand Duke, and my wife’s birthday is one of them,” he retorted. “And remember, thirteen hundred hours, my house, party.”

“Why so late?” she asked lightly.

“Because my first present to her is making her walk funny for the rest of the day,” he said, which made Miaari laugh.
Kaista, 16 Demaa, 4401, Orthodox Calendar

Monday, 3 May 2014, Terran Standard Calendar

Kaista, 16 Demaa, year 1327 of the 97th Generation, Karinne Historical Reference Calendar

Foxwood East, Karsa, Karis
Jyslin wasn’t the one walking a little funny when Jason finally got out of the bedroom. She’d been very amorous that morning, and since it was her birthday, he felt honor bound to stay in that room and do his solemn duty until she was completely satisfied.

What it did do is upset his daily plan a tiny bit. The Confederate Council was meeting before her party today, the only convergence of times so all rulers would be on their “day” cycle, so the meetings were pretty wildly spread across a day. It wasn’t easy when the members had activity cycles that ranged from 10 hours to 30 hours, so every day’s meeting time was usually the only window where all involved would be awake and alert. Some might be there early in the morning, some very late in the afternoon, but that was the only way it could really work. It was worst when Draconis and Karis were opposite one another, which would be happening in just a week or so. Right now, Draconis was some 9 hours ahead of them, so in that week or so, day for Dahnai would be night for him, and their council meetings were always crammed into the very end or beginning of the day. There would be a three day span next week where there would be no window for meetings, either. When that happened, they went with the window that served most of them, and some unlucky ambassador or two would be sitting in on the meeting in the dead of night to report back to their rulers when they woke up.

He ate breakfast with one mental eye inward, reading a report on the fighter. It had the most efficient and powerful reaction engines Myleena had ever seen, giving it nearly grav engine-level velocity, but like any reaction engine in space, it wasn’t as maneuverable. It had to rely on thrusters to turn, or in the fighter’s case, a clever series of exhaust ports that channeled the engine’s thrust in any direction required, and the thrusters were never as good as a gravometric engine. The result was a high-speed but slow-turning fighter that was probably superior to any other fighter in the Imxi’s sector, but was no threat to an alert Wolf pilot. But, the Torsion cannon the Consortium had stuck on it did make it dangerous in that it had a viable weapon. Miaari had been right, they were using self-powering Torsion cannons not unlike a ground artillery piece, an enclosed unit with its power supply integrated, then rigged up control systems so the unit could interface with the fighter’s computer. The cannon replaced the bulky ion weapons in the fighter, which allowed them to integrate it inside the fighter’s central body in place of the ion weapon’s main assembly and power supply and fire from a port in the nose, not unlike the gatling gun on the old A-10 ground attack fighter. The pilot was literally sitting on the barrel of the Torsion weapon, and it was a curious matter of serendipity that the ion array and its power plant that they took out was only slightly larger than the Torsion weapon they installed, making swapping out the weapons very easy for the Consortium engineers. Metallurgically, the fighter was composed of an inferior version of shocked titanium, a form of altered titanium that was stronger than normal titanium and wouldn’t burn if subjected to intense heat within an oxygen atmosphere, but it did show that the Imxi had some expertise in spacefaring metallurgy. Their metallurgical skill actually exceeded their other technological fields, such as power generation, propulsion, and shield technology. Metallurgy seemed to be their specialty, and they knew how to exploit that technological edge against their neighbors.

Biologically, the Imxi were very similar to Terrans, Shio, and Faey. They had similar tolerances for heat and air pressure, were slightly more tolerant of cold than the other three species, but they breathed both oxygen and nitrogen…which wouldn’t be a problem on most terrestrial planets, since most had nitrogen/oxygen atmospheres. Their metabolism was quite unique according to Songa’s report, requiring oxygen for fuel and nitrogen for cell health, which they acquired through aspiration...Songa and her fancy words. She couldn’t just say they get their nitrogen by breathing. Their metabolisms were consistent with most carbon-based species, which meant that the Imxi could survive on their food and vice versa. The series of pictures Songa took with her report did creep him out a bit, though. He’d never seen a four-armed species before, and he’d never dreamed of looking at what he’d call a four-armed Neanderthal. Low forehead, coarse hair, big nose, wide mouth with heavy teeth, reinforced cheekbones, the Imxi were right behind the Jakkans and the Bari-Bari on the Terran ewww-o-meter. They were not genetically compatible with Terrans, Shio, or Faey, no doubt much to the eternal relief of all three species.

Which wasn’t really an indicator, since Shio weren’t compatible with Terrans and Faey either, and all three races looked almost exactly identical. That green blood of theirs was the big one that made them incompatible.

Shio…he was starting to wonder if the entire damn race was trying to join the House Karinne. They comprised nearly 40% of the newest class of 23,995 house applicants, and had held numbers that high since the Shio were attacked. Shio were dominating the orientation classes, the majority race most of the time, with the Faey a distant second. Then again, Jason knew that Grayhawk was encouraging his people to join Karinne. The Shio’s planets were devastated and they were in no condition or position to fight, and many of them wanted revenge for what was done to them. The only way they could really do that was apply to Karinne and join the KMS. He perused those numbers as he finished up his oatmeal with slices of oye fruit and strawberries in it, and was encouraged a bit. There were more external races applying now, mainly Skaa and Shio, but what got his attention was that even more Verutans had applied, some 460 of them.

He almost dropped his spoon when he saw what was on the bottom of the list. Five Imbiri had applied. Imbiri! The Imbiri were a very reclusive and enigmatic species that lived in the Verutan sector. Much like how nobody bothered the Moridon, the Imbiri were not bothered or harassed by either the Veruta or the Haumda, since the Imbiri system sat on the border between the two empires. Both empires respected the small system’s desire for neutrality, and often used it as a neutral site for talks. This was because the Imbiri were complete and utter pacifists. They didn’t believe in warfare or violence in any form, but they did engage in trade with the empires of the Verutan sector and offered their services as mediators and neutral observers. The Imbiri were sylvan creatures, almost like the fairies or pixies from Terran mythology, about four or five feet tall, slim, graceful, ethereally beautiful to Terrans, and sporting large chitinous wings that gave them ability to fly. They were a low-gravity race, however, their home planet .83 standard gravity. They were extremely intelligent, and favored jobs in the sciences and education, but their code of honor prevented them from developing or building weapons. Their home planet was held in a natural state akin to a planetary national forest, with only ten major pockets where the Imbiri had their cities, allowed technology to intrude into nature. Anywhere else on Imbiri, there was nothing but small hamlets and farms that minimized their impact on nature as much as possible. There was an entire complement of Imbiri at the Academy, both students and instructors, but one didn’t have to be a member of House Karinne to be employed by the Academy.

You alright, your Grace? Ayama asked.

Just a little surprised. Five Imbiri applied for house membership. I’m kinda wondering why.

That is interesting, she agreed mildly. Maybe you should go talk to them.

I might do that, but not today, he replied.

After nearly an hour of listening to the council members talk, Jason finally freed himself and ran downstairs, spun Jyslin around in the living room, then kissed her exuberantly. And is the birthday girl ready for her party? he asked with a smile.

Not if you make me throw up, I won’t be, she replied with a wink, which made him laugh and set her down. I’m starting to wonder what you have hidden in your garden, love. No decorations, no guests?

We’re not having the party here, silly, he told her. Now come on. I had to fight Aya in a duel to the death to get her to let us leave the strip without armor, so let’s not waste this opportunity.

I’m still very much alive, thank you very much, Aya sent dryly from the barracks next door, which made Jyslin laugh.

Where’s Rann? Jyslin asked.

Myli has him, he’s already at the party. So c’mon, they’re waiting for us.

The two of them boarded the corvette sitting on the dock without armor, but with all four of his usual guards, and they took off for a three minute journey from the strip to the Karsa waterfront district. They disembarked at the waterfront pier for the most luxurious hotel in Karsa, the Imperial, where Jason had rented out one of the ballrooms for the party. Jason went so far as to put a blindfold over her eyes and lead her out of the corvette, Jyslin honestly intrigued. Jason was making it a mystery, and the Faey in her adored the mystery. Everyone in the ballroom remained quiet as he led her in, then he stepped behind her and took off the blindfold. And right in front of her, among her many friends and co-workers on the planet, were her parents, brother, brother’s family, and her aunt Lorna. “Happy birthday!” they all shouted, but Jyslin was already throwing herself into her father’s arms.

Papa, I’m so happy to see you! she sent gushingly, surprise and elation threaded into her thought. She then turned and crushed her mother in an embrace, then her brother and his wife, then Lorna, both laughing and crying at the same time.

So, can I find guests for a party, or can I? Jason asked lightly as she turned and gave him a fierce hug.

I can’t believe you got them here without me knowing!

It’s easy when I can make them work you half to death, he sent teasingly. You were too busy to notice.

She laughed helplessly, kissed him, then punched him on the shoulder. So you’re the reason why I’ve been working so hard!

Myli was in on it, too, he winked.

Having her family there made the party a smashing success, at least for Jyslin. She sat with them for the entire party, catching up with them, as friends and family drifted back and forth to her table to talk to them. She talked to them over vidlink quite a bit, but it wasn’t the same as having them there, able to hold her two year old niece Jiji who was an absolute cutie, and let her family get to be right there with Rann and hear him send. Her telling them he could send wasn’t the same as them hearing him send. For his part, Rann and all of Jason’s other children were drawn to Jyslin’s family, called them aunt and uncle and grandpa and grandma, which surprised Rillen and Vari and made them quite happy. Kyri and Sora and Aran and Zach weren’t their grandkids, but they were still technically their grandparents since Jyslin was Jason’s wife…sort of. It was enough for them to happily accept the titles and get to know Jason’s other children, though. It wasn’t all just local friends, though. Yila and Dara were there, sitting with Myleena and Kumi at the table beside the table of honor. Jason didn’t entirely invite Yila, she’d heard about the party and more or less crashed it, and since Zach was going to be there, she made sure to bring Dara along with her. Yila was getting bolder and bolder, and Jason had the feeling that he was going to have to step on her fairly soon.

Then came the gifts. Jyslin had an entire table full of presents, and it took her almost half an hour to go through them. From the silly and naughty—Kumi—to the soberly practical—Navii—Jyslin got clothes, jewelry, art, a Parri Dream Stick directly from the shaman of the Parri village, a device that was supposed to bring pleasant dreams, and Dahnai had sent Jyslin both a gag gift in a fully animatronic sex doll patterned to look exactly like Kellin, so you never miss him read the card, which made Jyslin laugh, to a new double occupancy hoverstroller for the twins. Jason made sure that his gift was last, because he had it in his pocket.

When it was his turn, he sat down beside her and fished the envelope out of his back pocket and unfolded it. “What is this, love?” she asked aloud, so Miaari wouldn’t feel left out.

“Happy birthday,” he told her.

She opened it, read the first line of the paper, and then screamed so loud that she scared most in the room half to death. She literally knocked Jason off the chair when she crashed into him, knocking them to the floor, covering his face with kisses as the gathered friends laughed.

“Whatever could produce that?” Temika asked with a laugh.

“He gave me the Paladins!” she screamed.

“The whut?” Temika asked, but that produced some gasps from the Faey in the room.

“We bought the Paladins IBL bachi team, Temika,” Yila chuckled from the side. “And this is the official announcement. We had the IBL office sit on this until today. In fact, the press release should be going out any minute now,” she added, glancing at her watch, which was a Rolex she bought from Terra that was built for the Faey’s 30 hour day.

That caused some excitement in the room. Jason ran some footage of the Velta Paladins for Temika on a holo, then revealed the new uniforms, which were almost exactly the same as the old, just with the Foralle crest replaced with the Karinne crest on the shoulder. Jyslin received the first uniform jersey, which amusingly the players didn’t wear when they played, just to and from the field, with Jyslin’s name and the number 1 on the jersey, which was always reserved for the owner as a matter of tradition. “Jyslin’s going to be the one that interacts with the team’s front office,” Jason explained. “In effect, she’s the one that’s going to be signing the checks, and will be the face of the ownership. Most of the team’s front office is coming here with the team during the move, and Frinia, the last owner, assures me they’re a good organization. They do seem to know their bachi.”

“Ah, ‘kay. Ah never did watch bachi much. Ah’m a football kinda gal.”

That buzz swirled through the room for quite a while, at least until Miaari stalked up to him and put a finger on her memory band. [I just got some news, Jason.]

[Good or bad?]

[I’m not sure yet. One of my packmates just caught someone trying to infiltrate the biogenic warehouse in Kosigi.]

[What? Who? What happened?]

[I don’t have the specifics yet. Cousin Braan is still gathering information. What he tells me is that it was a sleeper agent, an Imperial mindbender under the effect of a psychic clone. Not even we can detect that,] she banded to him grimly. Psychic clones were a division of the psyche, forming a secondary personality that could be as detailed as any real person, with its own memories, history, and if set up right, its own presence in the system. The other personality was sealed away and required either a telepath to bring it out or some kind of conditioned trigger that caused the personalities to switch. Psychic clones were extremely hard to do right. Jyslin could do it, as well as about 300 telepaths on Karis, but Jason himself didn’t have that kind of training. From the sound of it, this agent was triggered, probably using some audio phrase or specific image that caused the sealed personality to replace the initial one, which in this case would most likely be the spy’s original personality. They had used the psychic clone to sneak the agent past the Kimdori, but from the sound of it, the agent was caught after she activated and tried to steal something, be it technology or datafiles.

The reason why Kimdori couldn’t detect a psychic clone was because the sealed second personality was completely suspended, comatose, and thus there was no mental activity to give it away to a Kimdori’s unique ability. Even a telepath couldn’t detect a psychic clone unless they knew exactly what they were looking for, and they were also very good. Jyslin could create a psychic clone, but not even she could detect one. That took very specific training of a level that possibly only Ryn possessed on the planet. But given how hard it was to create a psychic clone of that kind of complexity and stability—setting one to trigger on some visual or audio trigger was not easy—it wasn’t something Jason had honestly expected to come across quite like this. Psychic clones became unstable over time unless there was a mindbender there to constantly stabilize it, as Jyslin had to do for Luke when he volunteered to carry a psychic clone back in the Legion days. If they’d sent an agent here with a psychic clone that was still stable months after creation, then whoever created that clone was a fucking telepathic savant.

Jason gave Miaari a grim look. [Holy fuck, if Dahnai has a mindbender that can do that,] he communed, then shook his head.

[I know. This will surprise even the Denmother,] Miaari agreed with a nod. [It also means I will double security at all sensitive locations. There might be another agent carrying a psychic clone among us, but we will be hard pressed to find it until the clone activates.]

[I know,] he nodded, then blew out his breath. Fucking Dahnai. This was from her, there could be no doubt. This had to come straight from her stable of most experienced mindbenders, and she was demonstrating that she was not going to stop until she managed to steal Karinne technology. The fact that she was his amu dorai sure as fucking hell wasn’t getting in her way. She’d wanted the secrets of the Karinnes since he claimed the house, and since he’d stonewalled her for five years, now that she had access to Karis, she was sending in the spies, sending spies with more and more cunning and complex covers to get them into a position to make an attempt to steal secrets.

But what earthly gain could it be for her? She knew that if he found out, he’d have a nuclear meltdown, and he’d find out pretty damn fast. She didn’t know that Cybi could detect biogenic devices, and the instant one was where it wasn’t supposed to be, Jason would know within two minutes. Did she really think it was worth having Jason have a conniption just to get her hands on biogenics?

Well, obviously, she did.

And there were some biogenic applications that didn’t need a Generation. Their entire interface system was based on biogenics, using a slightly different kind of biogenic crystal that could “read minds,” as it were, sensed thought and reacted to it. It was the closest the ancient Karinnes had come to their dream of machines that could interact with any telepath. Any empire in the sector would kill for interface technology.

[I am quite wroth about this,] Miaari conveyed, anger creeping into her banded communication. [I am going to contact Jinaami and have her raid the Imperium’s intelligence agency. We may not be able to detect these psychic clones, but if Jinaami can get her hands on the list of clone-carrying agents they have sent, we won’t have to look.]

[Good idea. You have my backing,] Jason agreed. That wouldn’t be easy. The Imperium’s sensitive areas were defended by mindbenders, and since Kimdori weren’t Faey, they’d see through a Kimdori’s shapeshift. For that reason, the Kimdori had to be much more Mission Impossible-esque to get their hands on that kind of information. Jinaami would call in specialists who would invade the intelligence agency and steal the information from their computers, or get close to high-ranking members and lift that information directly from their minds.

Damn it. Just when he thought they had a handle on security, fucking Dahnai sends something new at them, something that actually got into a position to try to steal something. Zaa wasn’t going to be happy, but this wasn’t Miaari’s fault; in fact, she acquitted herself well by having a security system in place that caught the spy before she could accomplish her mission.

He sighed, frowning. There was a reckoning coming between him and Dahnai, he could smell it. She wasn’t going to stop until he put his foot down, and when he did, she was going to be pissed off. But if she actually pulled off stealing something, she would force him to do something drastic to get it back, and something that might poison both their relationship and the alliance between Merrane and Karinne, and therefore destabilize the entire Imperium. She was using the fact that Jason couldn’t back away from the Imperium to send in her spies, abusing the situation, but she didn’t realize that the repercussions if she succeeded could have heavy repercussions, the least of which was the expulsion of every outsider from Karis.

He had to do something, and do it soon, before this got entirely out of control.

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